Artemy Lebedev

§ 112. Ampersand

March 22, 2005

Ampersand is the name of the & sign. There are three things one should know about it: where it comes from, why it is so called and whether there’s anything we may need it for.

Where it comes from
Ampersand is the graphic abbreviation of the Latin conjunction et (and).

In Russian the word ampersand is only recognized by Lopatin’s Russian Spelling Dictionary. Finding any mention of the sign in the pre-computer era literature is nearly impossible, because the use of ampersand in Cyrillic typesetting was very scant. In “Concise Manual on Typography” (St. Petersburg, 1899) it is defined as “a sign interchangeable with the conjunction ‘and’”, while “Technological Printer’s Reference Book” (Moscow, 1981) calls it “the conjunction sign used in mathematics”.

Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave and secretary, is credited with inventing ampersand. Even as a freedman, Tiro continued to record Cicero’s texts. So by 63 B.C. he invented his own system of abbreviations to speed up writing, which was called “Tironian notes” (“Notæ Tironianæ”, no original copy survives). This system was in use until the 11th century (which is the reason Tiro is also given credit as the father of the Roman shorthand).

See Ampersand by Allan Haley

From the second half of the 8th century ampersand was in extensive use by scribes and from the middle of the 15th century—by printers.

Housekeeping tip

Before even the abbreviated form et cetera (Latin for “and so forth”) was written and printed as &c instead of today’s customary etc.

Curiously, & is not only used in Latin texts, but also in literally all European books in English, French or Italian. Here’s an Italian specimen:

Nobiltà di dame […] Fabritio Caroso. Venetia. 1600.

Ampersands are highlighted when you move the cursor onto the text

14 ampersands of five sorts are scattered across this page. Here they are, sweeties, in a line:

In between the extravagantly curved ampersand on the left and the ordinary one on the right you can see almost all transitional forms. The & characters in the typecase used to have different faces to prevent the page from blurring before the reader’s eyes.

Housekeeping tip

At the dawn of book printing it was fashionable to compose similar characters in different patterns. For example, when the letter j emerged in the 15th century, it would often supersede i: xvij instead of xvii.

Sometimes (owing to poverty), if ampersand was absent from some font, it would be made up from what was available, say eight and c, the result being an “amazed Emiliano Zapata” smiley:

If you take a sheet of paper and a pen and try to write et many times, you will see that & is easier to reproduce—at least for the reason that this character requires three, not six movements to draw.

Why it is so called
Ampersand came to be a staple element in European writing to the extent that it wound up as the last letter of the English alphabet in all primers by the early 19th century (and started to be removed from them some hundred years later).

My Own Primer, or First Lessons in Spelling and Reading. Carter, Rev. John  P. // Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1857

From the Michigan State University Libraries electronic collections

When the alphabet was recited, per se (the Latin for by itself) preceded the letters that besides sounds also denoted words. So they used to say, for example, and, per se I, not to confuse the letter with the personal pronoun “I”.

The alphabet terminated with & that would be pronounced as “and, per se and”. This construction was too long for frequent and easy use, so the four words were run together, and in 1837 the entry “ampersand” was first added to dictionaries.

Is there anything we may need it for?
There’s no need to use ampersand in Russian.

Because the Russian conjunction и (and) sounds and looks short enough (with “y”, the Spanish are the luckiest of the bunch). The author can’t recall an example when one intelligible and condensed symbol is replaced with a few symbols or even just a ligature.

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